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Originally published in Surrey Life magazine July 2010
They may have been teased in the past over their squeaky clean image and penchant for love songs, but with 14 No 1 singles and 10 chart-topping albums, Westlife – the UK’s most successful boy band – have had the last laugh. As they get ready to play a big concert at Sandown Park in Esher next month, the group’s lead singer Shane Filan reveals why he’s chosen to lay his hat in Cobham
Interview by Angela Wintle
IT MUST be strange being in the UK’s most successful boy band when you’re married with three children. Singing lines like ‘I wanna grow old with you’ doesn’t quite wash when you’ve hit 30 and changed your third nappy of the evening. But it’s all in a day’s work for Shane Filan, the lead singer of Westlife, who recently settled with his young family in Cobham. And if he’s worried about the band’s shelf life, he isn’t letting on.
“Three or four years ago, I would have said we were probably the oldest pop band in the world, but Take That coming back gave us a lot of hope,” he says. “We’ll still be a ‘boy band’ when we’re in our 50s – we’ll never lose that tag. But if you have a strong fan base and distinctive style of music, you’ll always have a following.”
Shane, as you might have gathered, isn’t your average pop star. He’s a born philosopher with a sound head for business. In fact, Westlife, which also comprises Mark Feehily, Kian Egan and Nicky Byrne, has always had a reputation for bucking the trend – for quietly getting on with the job in hand without indulging in the usual rock excesses.
Shane, 30, who grew up in County Sligo in Ireland, puts it down to their solid family upbringing.
Just normal fellas
“A lot of people say we’re clean-cut, but we’re just normal fellas. We like to do normal things, but we’re just not that outrageous. We don’t go to VIP clubs and get ‘paparazzied’. And we don’t wreck hotel rooms.
Temptation is there in every walk of life, but I stay clear of it. Some people might say that’s strait-laced, but in my opinion it’s living life right. I don’t fancy ruining my life. I’m too much in love, to be honest with you.”
This clear-headed approach probably accounts for Westlife’s unrivalled success. The band, which will be performing at one of Sandown Park’s music nights in Esher this August, is the only UK act in history to have had seven singles go straight to No 1 and has sold more than 45 million records worldwide.
Taking time out
But last year, after a decade in the spotlight, they called a halt to the merry-go-round and took a year off to recharge their batteries. Shane hunkered down at his home in Ireland, where Gillian, his wife and childhood sweetheart, gave birth to their second child, Patrick (they’ve since had a third, named Shane, after his dad). “It was a holiday at home – something I’ve never done before,” he says. It also gave them time to reflect on the band’s future direction.
Their latest album, Where We Are, is the result – and it’s a slight departure, reflecting recording sessions in LA with a fresh team of producers and songwriters. It has been described as “somewhere between Bryan Adams and Celine Dion”, though there’s nothing to scare the horses. The lush, lachrymose ballads are still intact, not to mention that iconic key-change standing-from-the-stools moment.
“My favourite song is Shadows,” says Shane. “Lyrically, it’s one of our best vocals in a long time and it’s got a bit of tempo to it – something we’re generally not known for. Our fan base loves what we do, but it’s always nice to throw a spanner in the works every now and again to make it interesting.”
Westlife are not as manufactured as their critics like to imply. Shane, Mark and Kian have known each other since their schooldays in Sligo, where they played in a six-strong band called IOU. Back then, Shane was waiting on tables in his parents’ cafe and their biggest gig was at a 300-seater theatre.
Then Shane’s mother rang Louis Walsh, the manager of Boyzone, and asked if he would see the band perform. He liked their sound and fixed it for them to support the Backstreet Boys, while stressing that he didn’t have time to manage them. All that changed when he saw the reaction from the Irish crowd.
“He said he wanted to make us the next big pop band and six months later we met Simon Cowell and secured a record deal,” says Shane. In the process, six became three – and then five again, with the addition of Bryan McFadden and Nicky Byrne. Their success was immediate and the hits – Flying Without Wings, World of Our Own, What Makes A Man, Fool Again and My Love – just kept coming and coming.
Ten years on, Shane is enjoying the fruits of his labours and recently bought a large commuter pad in the Cobham area – a Georgian-style, yellow-brick house set in half an acre.
“It’s private, on a pleasant road and we have very nice neighbours,” he says. “It’s the perfect house in Surrey for me. It’s also conveniently near London – out of the city, but not too far. We live there about five or six months of the year.
“I haven’t had chance yet to explore the neighbourhood as much as I would have wished, but I know Cobham and Esher quite well. I’ve taken the children to several local parks and they love Chessington World of Adventures. They were also thrilled when Cobham and Esher were decorated with Christmas lights. It was about as Christmassy as it gets.”
Eagle-eyed locals may have also spotted him shopping at his local Sainsbury’s and Waitrose stores (he says he often pops in for a pint of milk). A keen golfer, he’s similarly no stranger to Wentworth. “It’s an amazing club – one of the best golf courses in the world. And I’m gradually getting my handicap down – it’s 14 at the moment.”
Shane and the band have also supported the CHASE Children’s Hospice in Guildford. “We know Max Clifford, their publicist, and it was very rewarding – especially as some of us now have kids. You want to put a smile on children’s faces as much as possible and it doesn’t take much for us to really cheer people up.”
And finally, of course, he’s limbering up for that concert at Sandown. “We’ve never performed there and we’re really looking forward to it – especially as it’s one of my local gigs.”
But while he enjoys letting his hair down, Shane also has a shrewd business brain. As well as his mock-Georgian mansion in Carraroe, Co Sligo, dubbed ‘Westfork’ by the locals, he owns an equestrian centre and is spearheading a major housing scheme just outside his hometown. If his pop career goes belly up, he’d happily reinvent himself as a property tycoon. At present, the property venture is just “a nice pension plan”.
And in the meantime, the day job will do just nicely, thank you. While other bands have come and gone, Westlife forges on, bound by genuine friendship. “Each brings something to the table,” he says. “Mark and I take care of lead vocals. Kian keeps an eye on the tours and budgets. And Nick focuses on the style of the band. We have four very different opinions and argue every second day, but we always find a happy medium – and that’s the be all and end all.”
The only disparate voice was McFadden, who went solo in 2004, but Shane – easily the most charismatic band member – has never been tempted to follow suit. “It’s not something I even think about. I’m in a successful band and love what I do. Now we’ve just got to stay at the top.”
•Westlife will be performing at Sandown Park in Esher on Thursday August 5 from approximately 8.45pm. Tickets will include an evening of racing, prior to the concert. For more information, visit the racecourse’s website at: www.sandown.co.uk/fixtures/westlife or otherwise ring 01372 470047.
My Favourite Surrey...
Restaurant: I like the Good Earth in Esher and Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant in Kingston. We also like Wagamama, the Japanese and sushi restaurant, in Kingston.
Shop: The Bentall Centre in Kingston is amazing and we go there for most of our shopping.
View: The river in Kingston is lovely and my daughter loves watching the boats.
Place to chill: I like to relax at my home gym. It really helps let off steam after a hard day’s work.
Place to visit: Bocketts Farm near Leatherhead. Our children love the farm animals and the indoor play area. We visit every two to three weeks.